"We need to make Apple Pancake," announced my friend Jennie. It was nearly a dozen years ago; I was fresh out of college and knocking around my own kitchen for the first time, doing experimental things like putting cinnamon in pasta sauce and struggling to bake chicken breasts. "Apple pancakes?" I said, forming a pleasant picture of a stack of chunky apple buttermilk pancakes, beaded with syrup. "No," she said. "The apple pancake."
There were not multiple apple pancakes; there was no stack. The apple pancake was something altogether new to me, involving apples, a family story, a cast iron skillet, and the magic of a hot oven — all before breakfast.
I learned that Jennie's parents would go on dates to the Original Pancake House in Chicago, where they would split an apple Dutch baby — an eggy, puffy cloud, baked in a skillet, with a towering crown of crisp, airy crust over layers of wobbly custard, apples, and molten cinnamon sugar. After they moved away from Chicago, her mom developed a version of the apple pancake, and it became a defining treasure of the family, to be made for special friends and company. (See more from Jennie and her mom in the comments below!)
So one weekend morning, Jennie and a few other friends gathered in my kitchen to chop apples and put sticks of butter in the oven to melt. We crumbled clumps of brown sugar and spread the apples out to soften in the pan. We whisked flour, milk, and eggs together and poured them over the apples. Then we waited, buoyed by the smell of dramatic things happening in the hot oven.
Then we took those pancakes out and dug in, our forks breaking that crisp crust, letting cinnamon-scented steam billow out. The apples were tender; the custard just sweet enough. It was a breakfast devoured. It wasn't like anything I had ever made before, and I was rapt with enjoyment of this apple and butter-soaked deliciousness, not to mention the dramatic crust. "See?" said Jennie, with a modest grin.
I can't say that this dish suddenly turned me into a serious cook, but the memory of pouring in the batter, watching it puff up and out, the sheer simple magic of eggs in the oven — it stands out like few other cooking memories in my life. Such a simple thing, right? Such pleasure, being ushered in to the magic of Jennie's family's apple pancake, and learning that while the process of learning to cook is slow and gradual, the power of family story makes nearly everything taste a little more delicious, and that some dishes create delight with such force that we decide we must return to the kitchen, and soon.
But enough about me. This dish is for you — Jennie is so generous to share it, and I can't think of a better way to start a weekend morning. (Yes, it's Thursday; I'm helping you plan ahead here.) Jennie's apple pancake has the caramelized apples of a tarte Tatin crossed with the eggy puff of a Dutch baby. Warm and tender on a snappy fall morning in apple season, this is my very favorite weekend breakfast.
This recipe, along with most others involving baked apples, does best with a tart, crisp variety. If you use softer or sweeter apples, toss the slices with some lemon juice before putting them in the pan to bring up the acidity and balance out the sweetness.
2 large apples (or 3 medium apples), preferably tart ones like Granny Smith
4 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/3 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup whole or 2% milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs
Powdered or cinnamon sugar, to serve
Heat the oven to 400°F. Peel, core, and quarter the apples, then cut them into medium slices (1/4-inch thick or less). Then cut the slices in halves or thirds. You should have about 3 cups of chopped apples.
In a small bowl, mix 3 tablespoons of sugar with the cinnamon and ginger and set aside.
Cut the butter into chunks and place them in a deep cast iron skillet or 8x8-inch baking dish. Put the skillet or baking dish in the oven for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the butter is melted. Take the pan out of the oven and sprinkle the 1/3 cup brown sugar over the melted butter. Carefully spread the apples on top of the brown sugar and sprinkle the cinnamon-sugar mixture over the apples. Put the pan back in the oven to caramelize the apples and sugar.
Whisk the flour with the remaining tablespoon of sugar, salt, and nutmeg. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly with a large wire whisk to beat out any lumps. When the flour is smoothly incorporated into the milk, beat in the vanilla and the eggs, one by one. Beat by hand for 2 minutes, or until foamy. Let the batter rest for 5 minutes. By now the sugar should be bubbling around the apples.
Take the pan out of the oven and pour the batter over the apples. Bake for about 20 more minutes, or until center is set and sides are lightly browned. The pancake will puff up dramatically but fall after a few minutes after you take it out of the oven.
If you want, serve with powdered sugar or more cinnamon sugar; I usually find that it is just sweet enough as it is.